Books That Feel Real: Spike Trotman On ‘Poorcraft 2′ And Building An Indie Comics Empire [Interview]
Comic book publishing is a difficult world to survive in, particularly for small and independent publishers. C. Spike Trotman and her Iron Circus Comics, however, has found a way to thrive. When we spoke with Trotman earlier this year for Hire This Woman, we spoke primarily about her role as a creator. Today, this is only a small part of the role Trotman plays in comics, as the slate of books from Iron Circus continues to increase.
As a publisher, Iron Circus places a high value on inclusivity and publishing books that are too often ignored in mainstream comics. To wit, the publisher has a currently-running Kickstarter for Poorcraft: Wish You Were Here written by Ryan Estrada and drawn by Diana Nock. The 130-page black and white book is the the followup to Trotmans original Poorcraft, and is available in a variety of formats at eminently sensible price/reward tiers.
With less than one week left to pledge to the Kickstarter, we reconnected with Trotman to talk about webcomics, publishing, smut, and paying the bills.
ComicsAlliance: Your background is in webcomics, obviously - what was the webcomics community like when you first started?
C. Spike Trotman: Oh, wow. Ha ha, that could take paragraphs to answer. But in short, it was anarchic. Very few -- if any -- cartoonists were making a living from their work online full time. There were still a lot of people who insisted it was impossible, that anyone who claimed they made a living wage from online comics was lying. There were even suggestions that we were dooming ourselves (and newspapers?!) by putting our comics online for free; If we didn’t see any value in our work, the opposition said, neither would readers and editors. And since, as we all now, people only buy newspapers for the comics section and newspaper sales only began to dip the second the first webcomic was uploaded, once we killed those off with our fiendish free content, we would loser other, far more legit people their jobs, too.
And the eternal accusation: Webcomics were what you did when print comics wouldn't have you. Never mind why they might not have you: Say, for instance, you weren't interested in writing and drawing superheroes.
CA: I'm particularly curious as I just interviewed Kel McDonald, who I know you know, and we talked about her experiences in early webcomics as well. I think it's interesting that a lot of people did (and still do) dismiss webcomics.
CST: Oh, absolutely! Kel is young, still in her twenties, and she's full of stories of classmates acting as if webcomics were the plague or a leper colony. "Ugh, I don't want a WEBCOMIC! I want a REAL one!" and so forth. Guess how many of them have webcomics right now? Ha ha.
CA: But webcomics in particular seem to be a home for people who aren't as welcome at comics publishers.
CST: 100%.That's what's gonna happen when there's no bar to entry. A lot of people cite that as a weakness, but I love it. I love the uncensored, even playing field. Anyone can get a Tumblr, y'know? Anyone can hit the library and scan a drawing, upload that. It's awesome.
And it's worth noting that editors and publishers have concerns other than the quality of a comic when it comes to what gets published. That’s not acknowledged enough.
CA: Absolutely - each publisher has a specific style, for the most part, and their own way of meeting and securing talent. Rare is the publisher that will hire only based on talent.
CST: Oh, yeah. And in the end, publishers are businesses. They have to keep in the black. That limits what they can confidently publish, both in terms of content and quantity.
CA: I mean, you are a publisher yourself - how do you handle working with creators and designing your line?
CST: Ha ha, you design a line? WHOOPS, DIDN'T KNOW THAT. Yeah, when it comes to publishing? I publish what I like. I publish stuff that I look at and go, "This deserves to exist." And if I could steal a line from Jess Fink for a moment, Erotica Is A Legitimate Genre. Not everyone thinks that, but I do. and i like it. So, it gets made.
And some of my projects, like a couple of anthologies, are a little concept-heavy because of that. Like The Sleep of Reason, which was horror without classic horror tropes (vampires, etc.). and my new one, New World? it's a Sci-fi/Fantasy anthology about mutually uncontacted people meeting. That interests me! So, it's in the works.
CA: Do you think publishing what you like is compatible with also running a publishing company as a business?
CST: Sure, if you run lean. Iron Circus Comics is pretty much just me. Well, me and my husband's occasional post office runs. I mean, I get there are people out there with extremely esoteric interests, they probably can't function on a publishing level with just comics about the varieties of vegan pho available in Guam or something. But for the most part [yes].
CA: And yet you see a lot of comics publishers run with an eye towards commercial interests first and foremost. Why do you think that is?
CST: Because comics are difficult. For everyone. This industry is ridiculously tiny. Lilliputian. Like, consider this: Nearly everyone on a creative level has bumped into That Guy who wants to commission a comic from their movie script, convinced comics is a stepping stone to "better" media. Who else has to deal with that on a universal level? I seriously doubt every novelist has had to deal with someone asking for their film script to be novelized, cuz then maybe finally Hollywood would buy it.
That's how seriously most people don't take comics. As a result, the margins for comics publisher can be slim. Very slim. And we all do things to stack the deck in our favor, be it exclusively publishing cape books or putting out smut.
CA: Every conversation I've had with people explaining the financial realities of what it costs to publish a print comic in particular ends in depression.
CST: Ha ha, well, I'll be your first happy one, then! Comics are expensive and risky, but they've been treating me pretty well. You can blame Kickstarter for that.
CA: You were an early adopter of Kickstarter, right?
CST: Oh, yeah, the year it launched, 2009! You needed an invitation to run a project on the site back then. Gordon McAlpin sent me mine. I'd first heard of it while on a panel at CAKE, a Chicago comic con. Gordon explained it to me while we were on stage, and I was like "...cool." and went home and began planning. That was the FIRST Poorcraft!
CA: And now you're doing another Poorcraft Kickstarter! Have you changed anything in how you approach crowdfunding/Kickstarter specifically?
CST: Oh, man. So much. For example, the first Poorcraft was Kickstarted in a "Help me get this made!" way. Nowadays, I strictly stick to "Help me get this published." I get as much of the project done before I launch the campaign as is possible. It's just so much less stressful. Poorcraft #1 didn't even exist when I launched its campaign; all that's left to do on Poorcraft #2 is the Kickstarter bonus material, like the cameos [of backers as pledge rewards].
CA: You wrote the first Poorcraft, but this one is written by Ryan Estrada - why did you make that change and is it weird handing off something you created to another creator?
CST: Oh, it's not weird at all! Honestly, it feels perfectly natural. The most important thing to me about Poorcraft is its usefulness. And if Ryan wrote a book on travel, it would be hella useful, way more than anything I could write. The first Poorcraft drew off of lived experience — the roommate-wrangling, the recipes, the gallery-crashing for hors d’oeuvres — so the second one should, too. And no one has more lived experience with cheap traveling than Ryan. He ASTOUNDS me.
CA: Do you think this is a series you'll continue with beyond this volume?
CST: I hope to! It all comes down to if I feel people want the books, if they're getting anything out of them. Poocraft needs to be useful. I can foresee a book in the series about cooking, maybe one about child-rearing too. but beyond that? I dunno, what would be useful? I won't keep it going for the sake of keeping it going, y'know?
CA: Do you find yourself doing more publishing than creating these days?
CST: Unfortunately, yes. I wish that wasn't the case, but remember what I said about running lean as a publisher? That means answering email four hours a day. I can't be too put out about it; this is something I worked for, so clearly i want it. But the majority of my creative output these days is scripting. I can go days without drawing, and I honestly thought that would never happen. However, it's comforting that this isn't all empty labor. It produces amazing things.
CA: There's obviously a value in enabling other comics creators to get their work out there, so it's definitely not empty labor. Do you hope to one day get the operation large enough that you have more time to draw? Or right now is it all about keeping it lean?
CST: Ha ha, well, the secret goal of Iron Circus Comics is to turn into a family business. Basically, I want to make enough for my husband to quit his job and come live with me. Part of that entails paying off the mortgage. I hope to do that in a few years of saving. if I can get Matt aboard full time to wrangle email, I'd have hours more free time every day. I dream about that.
CA: Switching gears a little, I've noticed that you put a real priority on inclusivity in the things you work on and publish. Why is this important to you?
CST: Because it's not important to so many other people. Seriously, I can't say this enough: Representation Matters. People who see themselves in media all the time don't appreciate that, when some people see characters and creators like themselves it's a Special Event. Whoopi Goldberg tells a story of, as a little kid, seeing Uhura on Star Trek and running, screaming, to get her mother, because there was a black lady on TV who wasn't a maid. Just by existing, being visible, and publishing what I publish, I'm doing my part.
CA: Some folks claim that because publishing is a business, those companies have a responsibility only to make money, but not to care about society/representation/etc. But media is important, right?
CST: VERY. And that opinion is bizarre. I guess they believe those people publishers refuse to represent don't have money to spend on comics? So no women have money? No Black and Latin@ people? No queer people? Really? Seems pretty asinine.
CA: On a sort of related note, I think this is why smut by and for women is so rare. But it's something women love, and from what I understand, is often quite lucrative when it's done.
CST: I think it's worth remembering why comics are they way they are. Women and girls didn't stop buying comics cold for no reason, once upon a time. Comic publishers were censored by the Comic Code Authority, and publishers clung to the demographics they were permitted to market to to survive. That was boys. And those boys aged and became comic writers and artists themselves. They aged up comic characters and gave them problems and issues that would interest people their own age. So now, your average cape book, its meat and potatoes is adult male readers. But getting that was a process. It involved congress. It's not Just How Things Are. and pretending you have no choice but to market to that crowd is inherently dishonest.
And I always describe Smut Peddler like... there's this big pile of money in the middle of the road, labeled PORN FOR WOMEN. and no one can see it but me. And I ask, "Hey, can I take this? I'm just gonna take this." And everyone else is like, "Take what? Nothing's there."
CA: But that's true - I mean, I read a LOT of historical romance novels, but those things don't exist in comics, so I left American comics for years because I was finding romance and smut in manga. There's definitely money there. Women want to read that sort of thing.
CA: It's sad when mainstream comics was more diverse in the 1940s than it has been since. In terms of readers and content, particularly.
CST: So true! Horror comics, romance comics, adventure comics, true crime comics, relationship comics!
CA: Are there difficulties in publishing erotica that doesn't exist for non-erotic comics?
CST: Finding a printer. FINDING A PRINTER. Oh god. There's just something about American printers, they don't want to publish smut. I usually have to go outside the country, to Canada.
CA: But will they publish T&A comics for guys? Or is it a blanket anti-smut policy?
CST: Y'know, I've never asked? I always assumed it was adult material in general. The most detail I ever got into, a printer I was considering said "no penetration." So I assume that 86's everyone.
CA: They're the Cinemax of printers?
CST: And I need the HBO, dammit!
CA: Do you foresee doing more smut?
CST: TONS. I have two smut books planned for 2015, another anthology and a long format, smutty graphic novel. I want to do an entire line of smutty GNs. I wanna publish other people's smutty GNs! Hope people want that.
CA: How do people submit pitches to you? Do you accept pitches?
CST: Oh, I won't be accepting pitches until the end of 2015 at the latest! I have to Kickstart my GN first, make sure there's demand. So haha, you wanna make a smutty GN through me? Back the one I Kickstart in the summer of 2015! Convince me there's demand! HINT HINT.
CA: So, we talked for Hire This Women not too long ago, but I'm curious - do you want to be "hired" per se or are you pretty focused on Iron Circus and doing your own thing?
CST: I'm up for anything, really. I love Iron Circus, but I know how small I am. And like all independent artists, I've always got multiple irons in the fire. I'll say yes to a lot of work! the only thing I imagine I'd turn down these days is administrative work for another publisher; I get enough of that at home!
CA: Are you currently making a living doing comics, if you don't mind me asking? I know that it's very difficult for people to do so.
CST: In theory, yes. But in practice, no. I'll explain. I make enough money to pay rent, buy groceries, live independently, all that jazz. But I don't draw a salary from the business. There are two reasons for this: one is all the profits from ICC go back into the business. It can grow more quickly if I don't depend on it financially. And two is related to what I said previously, about paying off the mortgage. What doesn't go to pay for more comics goes towards that. The advantages of a two-income household!
CA: So in theory you'd be able to support yourself but it wouldn't grow the business, so instead you're putting that money towards the business.
CST: The business could grown if I drew a salary, just not as fast. For example, I'll be publishing at least five books in 2015; I'd maybe be putting out three if I paid myself.
CA: Where do you hope to go with Iron Circus - like, what's the dream as far as what kind of and how many books you publish?
CST: I wanna publish a lot of woman-made smut. I wanna publish sci-fi and fantasy that's more than war stories or re-treads of aggressor-as-protagonist colonialism (show up, kill the locals, take their stuff, AKA: the Dungeon Crawl). I wanna get some serious book store penetration. I wanna be some new cartoonist's first choice publisher. I look forward to feeling OLD AS DIRT when some kid who's in grade school now runs up to me at a con at 15 or 16 and talks about how she stole her mom's Smut Peddler and read it all the time.
And I wanna publish slice of life, too. Books that feel real.